When an ex-convict with a grudge launches a campaign of brutality and death against House Dionysus, the members of House Phoenix step in — directly onto the path of the killer. Secrets are ripped open and shocking pasts brought to light in the fourth installment of the House Phoenix series…
For Dell Ramone, life is as good as it’s going to get — until psychotic killer Loyal Sims shows up again to finish the deadly dance they started years ago. Only this time, he plans on destroying everything she loves before making her pay for sending him to prison … with her life.
Knowing it’s her only chance to survive, Dell abandons her hard-won identity to become Randall — the man she was born as — and seeks refuge with the only House leader that Loyal has never met. But she can’t stay with Angel for long, because anyone who tries to stand between Loyal and what he wants is begging for death.
At the same time, Angel and House Phoenix must deal with a new threat that drags in painful memories for certain former members of House Pandora, all the way from Japan.
Warning: Contains violence, torture, and human slavery.
The accusation from Dell Ramone’s usually silent bodyguard tore her gaze from the packed dance floor below their balcony seat. Ania faced her without expression, eyes flashing in time with the frenzied pulse of strobes painting blue-white flickers over the animated bodies crammed in the basement of the Devil’s Den.
“Maybe.” Offering a careless shrug, Dell drained her glass and set it on the edge of the table. Within minutes a dark-skinned, shirtless specimen of a man with a faux loincloth that barely covered him moved in to clear the empty. The waiter held it aloft briefly, asking a question. Dell shook her head. He vanished.
She could have had him, if she’d chosen. But after allowing a hard and lithe young man with a talented tongue to handle her equipment earlier this evening, it was time to choose a woman. She wanted soft and warm now. Later, there would be time for the rough stuff.
Hopefully Ania wouldn’t be too upset.
Ania lapsed back into speechless mode and Dell returned to the hunt, her enthusiasm dampened slightly. Beneath the crystalline lightning beams, hundreds danced and writhed in explicit anticipation. Some came together in the midst of the melee, flesh entering flesh without heed of spectators. The shattering staccato of a techno bassline pumped from overhead speakers and wound through the action, a live copper wire of sound and vibration.
A few of her fighters were down there somewhere. Eddie and Rasheed in particular had been looking forward to the annual sin-fest at the Den. She hadn’t seen either of them with a woman in a while. For their sakes, she hoped the ones they latched onto were actually women. Many of the Den’s frequenters were as perfectly crafted illusions of feminine form as she herself.
Heaving a sigh, she toyed with a tiny glass vial lying on the table and shot a sideways glance at Ania. Her bodyguard’s stone features hadn’t changed. They weren’t likely to, either. At least not here. Ania preferred to stay away from crowds unless they were at Dell’s arena, where she could monitor everything that went on. Here, she was out of her element.
“Sugar, you worry too much,” Dell said, hoping to prod a smile from the rock. “Loosen up. Why don’t you go down there and pick yourself a man?”
Ania looked at her, clearly saying hell hadn’t frozen over yet.
“How ’bout a drink? Have one with me.”
Exasperated, Dell slid to the end of the booth. “Fine,” she said with a hint of dejection. “I’m gonna go down there, though.” She stood and smoothed the skin-tight leather tube she wore, pleased she’d been able to get herself tucked back in to undetectable after her last romp. “You comin’?”
“Do I have a choice?” Ania’s silk-and-gravel voice carried a touch of sarcasm, but her eyes reflected concern.
“No.” She smiled and drifted to the twisted metal staircase leading to the dance floor. Ania remained scant steps behind her. A touch of guilt shivered through her just before they stepped into the crush. Ania was acutely uncomfortable. But they went through this every year. Nothing would happen.
Dell found a gap in the shifting mass and stepped through. Ania followed.
The door leading in from the upstairs lounge burst open with a hollow bang, barely audible above the thunder of the music. A lone man vaulted through and stopped to close it behind him, then fired a gun into the deejay’s booth.
Sparks and smoke gushed from the jagged hole in the glass-encased booth. An earsplitting shriek came from the speakers that shut down with a crack she felt in her gut. A single scream rang out–then hell moved in.
The crush became a vise as people attempted to stampede away from the lone figure, now brandishing the gun in wild swinging arcs over the assembled crowd. Too far from the access stairs to see him, she pulled Ania close to her and half-shouted, “Who is that asshole?”
Ania shook her head. The man was screaming something, but the throng screamed louder. He fired again, this time aiming down further to take out a plaster chunk of wall. Debris rained down on the fringes of the mob to Dell’s left.
“…the hell up!” The shooter’s voice cut through the din. “Shut up, you dribbling morons! Where is she?” He drew a breath and shouted, louder this time. “Dell! I know you’re here, traitorous bitch! One of you fuckers best flush out Dell Ramone.” He leveled the weapon, aiming into the heart of the crowd. “Three and I shoot. One…”
Ania pushed her in the opposite direction from the shooter, keeping her from seeing him. Sick rage filled Dell at whatever this bastard was after, whoever he was, and she struggled to break free of the mob and face him. But Ania wasn’t having it.
“Two,” the gun-wielder roared over the clamor. A few souls had reached the lower exit leading to the alley and thrown it open. Bodies piled against the back wall, bottlenecked in terror.
She lunged toward the stairs, toward the loony with the gun. Again, Ania stopped her.
“Let me get to him,” Dell shouted. “He’s gonna hurt somebody.”
“Dell, that’s Loyal,” Ania said sharply. “Run!”
Loyal? Impossible. He wasn’t supposed to get out for another fifteen to twenty, and that was with good behavior.
The gun bucked in Loyal Sims’ hand. A spray of blood erupted from the center of the crowd, black droplets frozen in the surreal flashing air. Fresh shrieks tore through the basement and replaced the lost club beat with the discordant music of death. As the mob pressed back, a massive figure battled against the tide and gained ground toward the stairs.
It was her favorite fighter.
“Eddie, no!” Her cry was swallowed in the bedlam. The surge carried her away as Eddie, head and shoulders above the crowd and impossible to miss, bobbed in the opposite direction. Someone–one of the Den’s employees, it looked like–had taken charge of the evacuation. People filed and fled through the exit like flowing water.
Descending three steps, Loyal drew a bead on the advancing Eddie. “Dell!” he screamed. “This hero one of yours? Come out, or watch him die for you!”
Before she could react, Ania slammed bodily into her and propelled her toward the exit. “He’s already gone,” she rasped near her ear. “But you’re not. Move, Dell.”
They were feet from the door. Unable to tear her gaze away, she watched Loyal step down further. “Last chance!” the crazed shooter howled. “You only got ’til one, bitch! Or bastard, or whatever the fuck you are!”
The door. Cool air whispered across her heated skin. Almost out. Eddie…
A flat crack coincided with the back of Eddie’s skull bursting. Blood and bone splinters erupted in clouds to baptize the squirming solid mass of humanity packed around him. His head flopped back, and for one absurd moment his body remained upright, jostled into grotesque life by the movement of the mob. Just as she reached the door, Eddie’s husk sank slowly from sight.
She froze. Loyal stared across the chasm–then brought the gun up again.
“I see you!” He screamed in maniacal singsong tones, his eyes locked on her. She could feel them from here. Within seconds a bullet lodged just above the doorjamb, sending a shower of plaster into the air. “Hold still, bitch!”
Another shot slammed by, grazing the lower edge of the frame. Closer than the last. Loyal had good aim.
Dell blinked and found herself outside, sprawled on cold cement with Ania lying across her. Panicked partygoers flowed over them in their scramble to escape. Ania vaulted to her feet amid the mob and hauled her up, then pulled her along with the crowd.
“He’ll come out the front. We have to go somewhere. Not home.” Ania said as she guided them through the absconding sea, propelling her toward the street.
Shock encased her like hardening amber. Eddie. That bastard killed Eddie. Where were they? Manhattan. Uptown. And Loyal was on the loose.
Marcus Slade’s hotel was blocks from here. She could head there–no. Too obvious. Loyal knew Slade, or at least knew of him. Another hotel? Would the bastard check them all? Panic threatened to smother her, but suddenly the answer came.
The organization’s newest House leader ran a gym here in Manhattan, down past Chinatown. He lived there too, and he’d told her at the Halloween fight she hosted a few days ago that the third floor he’d been building to house his own fighters was nearly done. Loyal couldn’t know about him.
Besides, Angel owed her a favor.
“Ania, give me your phone and find a place to duck in.”
Wordlessly, the bodyguard handed her a slim silver cellphone and steered them toward a side street. Dell glanced back at the thinning mob. No Loyal. Yet.
They flew down the first subway stairs they came to, and holding her breath, she dialed Angel’s number.
* * * * *
SHADES OF BLACK: Available now from Amazon — coming soon to all major ebook retailers